Archive for the ‘Ascension’ Category

Britain and the World, 1979-84: A post-imperial postscript.   Leave a comment

Keith Joseph, Margaret Thatcher’s main supporter in her election as Conservative leader and in her early governments, once said that, in the past, Britain’s trouble had been that she had never had a proper capitalist ruling class. In 1979, the first Thatcher government sought consciously to put this right. The task it set itself was daunting – the liberation of British enterprise from a hundred years of reactionary accretions, in order to return the machine to the point along the path where it had stood when it was diverted away. It was helped by the fact that, with the empire gone, very little remained to sustain the older, obstructive, pre-capitalist values any longer, or to cushion Britain against the retribution her industrial shortcomings deserved. This movement promised to mark the real and final end of empire, the Thatcher government’s determination to restore the status quo ante imperium, which meant, in effect, before the 1880s, when imperialism had started to take such a hold on Britain. Thatcher looked back to the Victorian values of Benjamin Disraeli’s day, if not to those of William Gladstone. She itemized these values in January 1983 as honesty, thrift, reliability, hard work and a sense of responsibility. This list strikingly omitted most of the imperial values, like service, loyalty and fair play, though she did, later on, add ‘patriotism’ to them. Nevertheless, the new patriotism of the early 1980s was very different from that of the 1880s, even when it was expressed in a way which seemed to have a ring of Victorian imperialism about it.

Part of the backdrop to the Falklands War was the residual fear of global nuclear war. With hindsight, the Soviet Union of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko may seem to be a rusted giant, clanking helplessly towards a collapse, but this is not how it seemed prior to 1984. The various phases of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START) were underway, but to well-informed and intelligent analysts the Soviet empire still seemed mighty, belligerent and unpredictable. New SS20 missiles were being deployed by the Soviets, targeted at cities and military bases across western Europe. In response, NATO was planning a new generation of American Pershing and Cruise missiles to be sited in Europe, including in Britain. In the late winter of 1979 Soviet troops had begun arriving in Afghanistan, Mikhail Gorbachev was an obscure member of the Politburo working on agricultural planning, and glasnost was a word no one in the West had heard of. Poland’s free trade union movement, Solidarity, was being crushed by a military dictator. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter had issued an ultimatum: the Soviets must withdraw or the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympic Games due to be held in the summer of 1980. Margaret Thatcher supported the call for a boycott, but the British Olympic Association showed its independence from government and defiantly sent a team, supported by voluntary contributions from students, among others. Two British middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett each won gold medals.

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Western politics echoed with arguments over weapons systems, disarmament strategies and the need to stand up to the Soviet threat. Moscow had early and rightly identified Margaret Thatcher as one of its most implacable enemies. She had already been British Prime Minister for eighteen months when Ronald Reagan’s administration took over in Washington. He may have been many things Thatcher was not, but like her, he saw the world in black and white terms, especially in his first term to 1984. She was from a Methodist background, he was from a Presbyterian one, so they both shared a view of the world as a great stage on which good and evil, God and Satan, were pitched against each other in endless conflict. Reagan found a ‘soul mate’ in Thatcher. Already dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ by the Russians, Thatcher was resolute in her determination to deregulate government and allow the benefits of capitalism to flourish at home and abroad. Although the UK was committed to Europe, Thatcher was also a strong believer in Britain’s “enduring alliance” with the United States. Reagan and Thatcher saw eye-to-eye on many key issues. Their shared detestation of socialism in general and Soviet communism, in particular, underpinned their remarkably close personal relationship which was eventually to help steer the world away from Armageddon.

Of course, in a sense, the Falklands War of 1982 could be seen as an imperial war, fought as it was over a fag-end of Britain’s old empire: but that was an accident. There was no imperial rationale for the war. Britain did not fight the Argentines for profit, for potential South Atlantic oil reserves (as some suggested), or for the security of her sea lanes, or indeed for the material or spiritual good of anyone. She fought them for a principle, to resist aggression and to restore her government’s sovereignty over the islands in the interests of the islanders themselves. The war also served to restore to Britain some of the national pride which many commentators had long suggested was one of the other casualties of the empire’s demise. That was what made an otherwise highly burdensome operation worthwhile if that sense of pride could be translated into what Sir Nicolas Henderson had described three years earlier as a sense of national will. Similarly, Margaret Thatcher believed that if British Leyland could be injected with some of the same ‘Falklands spirit’ then there was no reason why British industry could not reverse its decline. The popular jingoism the affair aroused and encouraged showed that a post-imperial Britain would not necessarily be a post-militaristic one. But it was not an imperial jingoism per se, more one which expressed a national pride and patriotism. It did not indicate in the least that ‘imperialism’ proper was about to be resurrected, even if that were practicable; or that anyone intended that it should be.

However proud Britons were to have defended the Falklands, no one was particularly proud any longer of having them to defend. Most of Britain’s remaining colonial responsibilities were regarded now as burdens it would much rather be without and would have been if it could have got away with scuttling them without loss of honour or face. In her new straitened circumstances, they stretched its defence resources severely, and to the detriment of its main defence commitment, to NATO. They also no longer reflected Britain’s position in the world. When Hong Kong and the Falklands had originally been acquired, they had been integral parts of a larger pattern of commercial penetration and naval ascendancy. They had been key pieces in a jigsaw, making sense in relation to the pieces around them. Now those pieces had gone and most of the surviving ones made little sense in isolation, or they made a different kind of sense from before. If the Falklands was an example of the former, Hong Kong was a good example of the latter, acting as it now did as a kind of ‘cat-flap’ into communist China. The Falklands was the best example of an overseas commitment which, partly because it never had very much value to Britain, now had none at all.

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Diplomatically, the Falklands ‘Crisis’ as it was originally known, was an accident waiting to happen, no less embarrassing for that. At the time, the defence of western Europe and meeting any Soviet threat was the main concern, until that began to abate from 1984 onwards. The British Army was also increasingly involved in counter-insurgency operations in Northern Ireland. Small military detachments helped to guard remaining outposts of the empire such as Belize. But Argentine claims to the Falklands were not taken seriously, and naval vessels were withdrawn from the South Atlantic in 1981. In April 1982, though, Argentina launched a surprise attack on South Georgia and the Falklands and occupied the islands.

001Even if oil had been found off its shores, or South Georgia could have been used as a base from which to exploit Antarctica, Britain was no longer the sort of power which could afford to sustain these kinds of operations at a distance of eight thousand miles. The almost ludicrous measures that had to be put into place in order to supply the Falklands after May 1982 illustrate this: with Ascension Island serving as a mid-way base, and Hercules transport aircraft having to be refuelled twice in the air between there and Port Stanley, in very difficult manoeuvres. All this cost millions, and because Britain could not depend on the South American mainland for more convenient facilities.

But it was not only a question of power. Britain’s material interests had contracted too: especially her commercial ones. For four centuries, Britain’s external trade had used to have a number of distinctive features, two of which were that it far exceeded any other country’s foreign trade and that most of it was carried on outside Europe. However, between 1960 and 1980, Britain’s pattern of trade had shifted enormously, towards Europe and away from the ‘wider world’. In 1960, less than thirty-two per cent of Britain’s exports went to western Europe and thirty-one per cent of imports came from there; by 1980, this figure had rocketed to fifty-seven per cent of exports and fifty-six per cent of imports. In other words, the proportion of Britain’s trade with Europe grew by twenty-five per cent, compared to its trade with the rest of the world. Of course, this ‘shift’ was partly the result of a political ‘shift’ in Britain to follow a more Eurocentric commercial pattern, culminating in the 1975 Referendum on EEC membership.

By 1980 Britain was no longer a worldwide trading nation to anything like the extent it had been before. Moreover, in 1983, a symbolic turning-point was reached when, for the first time in more than two centuries, Britain began importing more manufactured goods than it exported. It followed that it was inappropriate for it still to have substantial political responsibilities outside its own particular corner of the globe. British imperialism, therefore, was totally and irrevocably finished, except as a myth on the right and the left. I remember Channel Four in the UK screening a programme called ‘the Butcher’s Apron’ in 1983 which argued, from a left-wing perspective, that it was still very much alive, and that the Falklands War was clear evidence of this. Likewise, there were, and still are, many nationalists in Scotland and Wales who used the term as a metaphor for the ‘domination’ of England and ‘the British state’ over their countries. Of course, in historical terms, they could only do this because the British Empire was a thing of the past, and the sending of Welsh guardsmen to recover islands in the South Atlantic was an unintended and embarrassing postscript, never to be repeated.

The imperial spirit had dissipated too, despite Mrs Thatcher’s brief attempt to revive it in Falklands jingoism and whatever might be said by supercilious foreign commentators who could not credit the British for having put their imperialist past behind them so soon after Suez and all that and certainly by 1970, when they had abandoned overseas defence commitments ‘east of Suez’. But Britain had indeed left its past behind it, even to the extent of sometimes rather rudely ‘putting its behind in its past’ to emphasise the point. Scattered around the globe were a few little boulders, ‘survivals’ from the imperial past, which were no longer valued by Britain or valuable to her. There were also some unresolved problems, such as Rhodesia, which became Zimbabwe, as an independent territory in 1980. Britain had clearly dissociated itself from its white racist leaders even at the cost of bringing an ‘unreconstructed Marxist’ to power. After that, smaller island colonies in the Caribbean and the Pacific continued to be granted their independence, so that by 1983 the Empire had effectively ceased to exist.

In 1984 Bernard Porter wrote, in the second edition of his book on British imperialism, that it was…

… unlikely that any subsequent edition of this book, if the call for it has not dried up completely, will need to go beyond 1980, because British imperialism itself is unlikely to have a life beyond then. That chapter of history is now at an end.

It was not a very long chapter, as these things go; but it is difficult to see how it could have been. The magnificent show that the British empire made at its apogee should not blind us to its considerable weaknesses all through. Those who believe that qualities like ‘will’ and ‘leadership’ can mould events might not accept this, of course; but there was nothing that anyone could have done in the twentieth century to stave off the empire’s decline. It was just too riddled with contradictions.

The Imperialists themselves were the first to predict the decline; that Britain could not help but be overhauled and overshadowed by the growing Russian and American giants. Britain did not have the will to resist this development and the empire was not, in any case, a fit tool for resistance. While Britain had it, in fact, the Empire was rarely a source of strength to the ‘mother country’, despite the attempts of imperialists to make it so.

A part of the narrative of the Falklands Crisis not revealed at the time was the deep involvement, and embarrassment, of the United States. Mrs Thatcher and President Reagan had already begun to develop their personal special relationship. But the Argentine junta was important to the US for its anti-Communist stance and as a trading partner. Prior to 1982, the United States had supported the Argentine generals, despite their cruel record on human rights, partly because of the support they gave the ‘Contras’ in Nicaragua. Therefore, they began a desperate search for a compromise while Britain began an equally frantic search for allies at the United Nations. In the end, Britain depended on the Americans not just for the Sidewinder missiles underneath its Harrier jets, without which Thatcher herself said the Falklands could not have been retaken, but for intelligence help and – most of the time – diplomatic support too. These were the last years of the Cold War. Britain mattered more in Washington than any South American country. Still, many attempts were made the US intermediary, the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig, to find a compromise. They would continue throughout the fighting. Far more of Thatcher’s time was spent reading, analysing and batting off possible deals than contemplating the military plans. Among those advising a settlement was the new Foreign Secretary, Francis Pym, appointed after Lord Carrington’s resignation. Pym and the Prime Minister were at loggerheads over this and she would punish him in due course. She had furious conversations with Reagan by phone as he tried to persuade her that some outcome short of British sovereignty, probably involving the US, was acceptable.

Thatcher broke down the diplomatic deal-making into undiplomatic irreducibles. Would the Falkland Islanders be allowed full self-determination? Would the Argentine aggression be rewarded? Under pulverizing pressure she refused to budge. She wrote to Ronald Reagan, who had described the Falklands as that little ice-cold bunch of land down there, that if Britain gave way to the various Argentine snares, the fundamental principles for which the free world stands would be shattered. Reagan kept trying, Pym pressed and the Russians harangued, all to no avail. Despite all the logistical problems, a naval task force set sail, and with US intelligence support, the islands were regained after some fierce fighting.

Back in London in the spring of 1984, Margaret Thatcher’s advisers looked into the new, younger members of the Soviet Politburo who had emerged under Konstantin Chernenko, the last of the ‘old guard’. He was old and frail, like his predecessor, Yuri Andropov. The advisors to the Prime Minister wondered with whom she, and they, would be dealing with next, and issued a number of invitations to visit Britain. By chance, the first to accept was Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited Thatcher in London. He arrived with his wife, Raisa, itself remarkable, as Soviet leaders rarely travelled with their wives. By comparison to the old men who had led the Soviet Union for twenty years, the Gorbachevs were young, lively and glamorous. The visit was a great success. After Thatcher and Gorbachev met, the Prime Minister was asked by reporters what she thought of her guest. She replied with a statement that, again with the benefit of hindsight, was to usher in the final stage of the Cold War:

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Sources:

David Killingray (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

Bernard Porter (1984), A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1983. Harlow: Longman.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Pan.

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Question Time: The Ten Challenges of the Risen Christ to His Followers, II.   Leave a comment

Part Two: Appearances and Interactions – The Meaning of the Resurrection.

For many people today the word ‘resurrection’ is meaningless. They find the idea of resurrection not only difficult but incredible.  We need to remember that it never was easy or credible – that’s why Jesus’ friends were taken by surprise when it happened, although he had spoken about it a number of times. For both the Graeco-Roman and Jewish people of the first century, the whole idea of an executed criminal being raised to life by God was anathema, a stumbling block, an obstacle that prevented them from taking the story of Jesus seriously. For educated people throughout Palestine and beyond it was just ‘rubbish’. Even some who professed to be Christians couldn’t understand what it meant. Yet the evidence suggests that in the few weeks that followed the death of Jesus some of his friends had certain experiences of Jesus risen. These ‘appearances’ then ceased and the later experiences, beginning with the dramatic conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, were real but different. The resurrection of Jesus was not in the same category as other reported ‘resurrections’ of men, even that of his friend Lazarus, in which Jesus himself had been instrumental. It was a unique event in which death had been defeated. The event was not only a historical event, but after the strictest possible scrutiny these reports do not strike us as fictitious accounts that owe their existence to the human imagination; they strike us as honest attempts to give some account of real experiences that defied all efforts to give a coherent account of them. The early friends of Jesus had no doubts as to their authenticity. Their new experience of God, their new fellowship with one another, their new understanding of human life and history were not something they had struggled to achieve; they were gifts. The Spirit of Jesus was present with them. The final evidence that these were not reports of queer hallucinations was the reality of their new life and fellowship.    

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Christians now accept without any reservations the Biblical version of the ‘disappearance’ of the body of Jesus, but until the end of the first century, there was no Biblical account to go by, no ‘New Testament’ until the fourth century. Different parts of it were written by AD 100, but not yet collected and defined as ‘Scripture’. Early Christian writers like Polycarp and Ignatius quote from the gospels and Paul’s letters, as well as from other Christian writings and oral sources. Paul’s letters were collected late in the first century, and the ‘Synoptic Gospels’ (Matthew, Mark and Luke were brought together by AD 150. One papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John dates from about AD 130, and more fragments of it, in the Bodmer Papyrus II, date from about AD 175-225, together with parts of Luke’s Gospel. For those for whom the Bible’s teaching is the starting point, exact theological thinking depends upon an accurate Greek New Testament. The history of the early church may also have affected the copying of the New Testament text. Clearly, the New Testament writings were considered important in the early church, since many copies were made for private reading as well as use in worship. However, this did not always guarantee scrupulous, exact copying of them. While no manuscript is free of either accidental or deliberate variations, some manuscripts seem to reflect a more careful tradition of copying, while others reveal a much freer attitude towards the actual words of the New Testament. The early Christians revered and used it greatly, but did not treat the exact wording with care.

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From the time they were first produced as collections of texts, or ‘books’, from about AD 200 onwards, the New Testament writings were always closely linked with the church and its worship, evangelism, beliefs and institutions. The information available concerning the New Testament in the early period shows how New Testament Scripture and the church interacted and affected each other at that time. The church was concerned to make Scripture widely available; some of the variations in early New Testament manuscripts reveal a concern over misunderstandings of Scripture or perhaps misinterpretations and misuse by heretics. So, can the texts be trusted? As F. F. Bruce, the Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis in the University of Manchester wrote in the mid-1970s:

The variant readings about which any doubt remains among textual critics of the New Testament affect no material question of historical fact or of Christian faith and practice.

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The earliest account of the resurrection appearances we have is found in one of Paul’s letters written in Ephesus somewhere around AD 56, nearly thirty years after the events described later in the gospels. But it probably goes back to within a few years of those events, as Paul’s words suggest, to his own baptism in Damascus in about AD 36:

I handed on to you the facts which had been imparted to me: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the Scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised to life on the third day, according to the Scriptures; and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter) and afterwards to the Twelve. Then he appeared to over five hundred of our brothers at once, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, and afterwards to all the apostles.

In the end he appeared even to me; though this birth of mine was monstrous, for I have persecuted the church of God and am therefore inferior to all the other apostles – indeed not fit to be called an apostle. However, by God’s grace I am what I am.

(I Cor. 15. 3-10 NEB)

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The verb ‘to appear’ can describe either a visible sighting or a spiritual experience. Here, Paul is writing to Christian friends who, even twenty years after the execution of Jesus, are finding it difficult to understand what the resurrection from the dead means. Whatever happened was always difficult to describe and explain. Moreover, Paul is not expressing his opinion about what happened or his own version of events. He tells us that he is reporting what was ‘handed on’ to him, probably at his baptism within a year or two of the events he is reporting. This was the authoritative account passed on to the first Christians as part of the baptismal liturgy from the very beginnings of the Christian community in Syria, if not also in Jerusalem and Palestine. Paul also says that his experience was like those of Peter and the others. We have no account in the gospels of Jesus’ appearance to Peter on the first Sunday, though we know (according to Luke) that it happened before the appearance to ‘the twelve’ (including Cleopas, but not – of course – Judas Iscariot). Paul’s own description of his experience is quite brief. He writes in another of his letters that God chose to reveal his Son to me.

In Luke’s ‘sequel’ to his gospel, The Acts of the Apostles, he describes Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, where he was going on a mission from the High Priest to arrest any followers of ‘the Way of the Lord’:

As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,

“Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” he asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you persecute,” the voice said. “But get up and go into the city, where you will be told what you must do.”

The men who were travelling with Saul had stopped, not saying a word; they heard the voice but could not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground and opened his eyes, but he was not able to see a thing. So they took him by the hand and led him into Damascus. For three days he was not able to see, and during that time he did not eat or drink anything.

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The experience of Saul/ Paul as it is written here differs in two ways from the five ‘gospel’ experiences I have written about below in two important respects. Firstly, this is not a physical appearance in the sense of Jesus appearing in physical form. Paul is instantly blinded, but neither do his Guards see anyone, though they too hear a voice. Secondly, this experience occurs long after the appearances in the gospels are reported to have taken place, during the forty days between the first Sunday and Jesus’ ascension. These two differences explain each other, however, and in Paul’s own long discourse on the resurrection of the body following his affirmation in I Corinthians 15 that the heart of the Good News is that Jesus is not dead but alive, he makes it clear that the resurrection is not a raising to life of the mortal remains of the dead, but a transformation of human ‘beings’ into an ‘immortal’ physical form:

Here the body is a ‘physical’ body; there it is raised a ‘spiritual’ body. Here everything grows old and decays; there it is raised in a form which neither grows old nor decays. Here the human body can suffer shame and shock; there it is raised in splendour. Here it is weak; there it is full of vigour.

There is meaning in the words of the Bible – ‘Death has been totally defeated’. For the fact is that Jesus was raised to life. God be thanked – we can now live victoriously because of what he has done.

(Dale’s New World paraphrase)

If we accept the whole story of Jesus, including the resurrection, we suddenly become aware of who we are and what our job is. We take our place in our families as parents and children, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbours, and in the world of work as engineers, teachers, builders, shopkeepers, technicians, farmers, doctors, nurses, and administrators. But we are also member’s of God’s family and God’s fellow workers. It is not just our vocations in this life that matter. Since death has been totally defeated, this world is just an exciting beginning.

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Above: An illustrated page from the Stavelot Bible. 

In the corners are symbols to represent each of the Gospel writers.

The very divergences in the gospel reports reveal their honesty. They give the stories that were current in the great centres of the early Christian community. We should not try to make them fit together as if they were pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The original ending of Mark’s gospel was lost, and its current ending (16: 6-20) was added much later, so its accounts conflict in some important details with the other three gospels. The actual, ‘authentic’ appearances of Jesus given in the gospels can be listed as follows:

  • Matthew – to the women, to the eleven in Galilee;

  • Luke – to two disciples (not of the twelve) on their way to Emmaus;

    to the eleven (plus the two) in the upper room, followed by the Ascension from Bethany;

  • John – to Mary of Magdala, outside the tomb;

    to the ten, behind locked doors in Jerusalem (without Thomas); to the eleven a week later, behind locked doors (with Thomas);

    to the seven on the beach of the Sea of Galilee;

  • Mark (the added ending) – to Mary of Magdala;

  to two ‘as they were walking in the country’ (Emmaus?);

  to the eleven ‘at a meal’ before the Ascension (a summary of other    earlier accounts?)

Paul’s list is different still, as we have quoted above. He does not mention the empty tomb. Mark does (16: 1-5), and so do the other three evangelists, but this, by itself, was no proof of Jesus’ resurrection in itself, simply secondary evidence of how it might have taken place, which, without a physical body, would have been easy to ‘cover up’.  Matthew’s account of the Report of the Guard (28: 11-15) demonstrates how the chief priests were able to falsify evidence in order to claim that the disciples had stolen the body and to spread this false report among the Judean population. As the fictional Temple Guard, Maron, ‘narrates’ in David Kossoff’s 1971 Book of Witnesses, far from being severely punished for dereliction of duty, the guards were well-rewarded for their ‘discretion’ about what they had witnessed at the tomb:

No shame or dishonour; a reward. And that was the story. The only story. No other. Even if Governor Pilate himself were to ask us, that was the story. … the stealing of the body by a large gang of trained agitators. 

Then the elder gave us a bag of gold to share among the men … Before distributing the money to the men, the elder said, explain to them – the exact, and only, story.

And that’s it. You needn’t tell me any other stories, of the Carpenter rising from the dead and meeting his friends and so on, I’ve heard them. … if you don’t like one story, choose another, there are lots.

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The empty tomb was not, in itself, evidence of the resurrection. The dramatic story of the appearance of ‘the man in white’ which both Matthew and Mark relate (Luke and John report that there were two men) seemed like ‘nonsense’ to the disciples, Luke tells us, when they heard it from the women (24: 11). John’s account also confirms (John 20: 9 ff.) that he had looked in the tomb before Peter arrived, seeing the lengths of cloth which had been wound around the body lying in their original position as though they were still ‘moulded’ around it. There was nothing undone and trailing on the floor. He knew that the body could not have been removed without the lengths of cloth being unwound. When Peter arrived and they went in together, this mystified both of them. John tells us that he was prepared to believe that something miraculous might have happened, but he doesn’t seem to have shared this belief with Peter. If he did, Peter seems to have rejected it. It was only after they had seen the risen Jesus, that they began to understand the Scripture predicting that the Messiah would rise from the dead. If the disciples themselves were not deeply impressed by the discovery of the empty tomb, why would anyone be? They did not claim that Jesus was alive simply because they could not find his body.

In addition, a contemporary Jewish record informs us that Caiaphas ordered Joseph of Arimathea to appear before the Sanhedrin for questioning and openly accused him of being the prime instigator of a plot to remove the body, demanding to know where the body had been moved to. Joseph refused to say anything about the disappearance. Of course, there was very little he could say since he had not been to the tomb since before the Sabbath. He must also have known that, as a member of the Sanhedrin, he could not be prosecuted, even if, inadvertently, he said something which could be twisted and used against him. He would have been more wary of revealing the whereabouts of the disciples. Of course, the chief priests continued to insist on, and believe in, their false story that the body of Jesus had been stolen and secretly buried by Joseph and the disciples. Though they knew they had no evidence to support their story other than the lies of the bribed guards, they must have believed that this had indeed been what had happened. After all, they had taken every precaution not to arouse further anger among the population of Judea and cause further anxiety to Pilate.

We can well believe that the Sadducees had nothing to do with the disappearance of the body. If they had had the body removed they would never have left the linen in the tomb, neither would they have left the entrance open. The guard was theirs, and they would certainly have concealed their crime by having them replace the stone and giving them orders to forbid anyone entry. Since they themselves had not moved the body, who else, other than the disciples, would have done so? For their part, the disciples only had to believe the evidence of their own eyes, not that of angels or even of the women, that he had risen according to his word, on the third day, to be the first-fruits of all who slept. Therefore, the question of who moved the stone? soon became an irrelevance in the contest between truth and falsehood.    

If we read the reports of this ‘fresh evidence’ for the resurrection in chronological order, as below, we also note the increasing emphasis on the materiality of the appearances. We may notice that they differ in their locations for similar events, but this misses the fundamental point, that in each ‘appearance’ Jesus ‘challenges’ the disciples with questions, just as he had done in his ministry. These are not ghostly appearances, but ‘interactions’ with a walking, talking teacher. These ‘interactive’ appearances of the risen Lord to his friends take place as follows:

1. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, alone outside the tomb).

Woman, why are you crying? 

Jn. 20: 14-15;

Mary has returned to the tomb, having been the first to find it empty earlier that morning, and is standing in the garden outside, crying. Peter and John have now gone back home, having found the empty grave-clothes in the tomb. She too looks into the tomb and sees two angels sitting at either end of the empty, moulded grave-clothes. They ask her the question first, Woman, why are you crying? and she answers that the body has been removed, but she doesn’t know by whom or to where. Jesus appears outside the tomb but is not, at first, recognised by Mary. He repeats the question put to her by the angels. The simple, heartfelt question reveals the initial, natural reaction of confusion, bewilderment and distress that Mary is experiencing. Her tears also show that her mixture of emotions is genuine; she obviously has no idea what has happened to Jesus’ body and could not have been part of some elaborate plot by the disciples to steal the body, the ‘smear’ that the chief priests bribed the guard to spread.

Let’s consider the interaction between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the context of his relationships with his female disciples. Is it significant that the risen Jesus appeared first to the women, and in John’s account to Mary Magdalene? After all, as John also tells us, he and Peter had been in the empty tomb only seconds before and had seen no-one, not even the angels, who also appeared to Mary. There’s little doubt, by all accounts, that Jesus had an unorthodox perspective on the importance of women among his followers, although he chose twelve men as his apostles. What is significant, perhaps, is that Mary is the only follower to witness the risen Jesus as an individual. It is the testimony of the evangelists, especially Luke, that Jesus had a special regard and limitless compassion for the ‘outsiders’ of society, or ‘sinners’ as they were referred to by the religious authorities. Earlier in his gospel, Luke records that as Jesus travelled about the towns and villages of Galilee he was accompanied not only by the twelve disciples but also…

… by some women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their means.

(Luke 8: 1-3)

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That a travelling Rabbi should be accompanied by women is surprising enough, but two of the women, Mary of Magdala and Joanna were outsiders in a particular sense. There is no evidence that Mary had been a prostitute, as she has sometimes been portrayed in films. The text says that Jesus had cast out from her seven demons, which means, in modern terms, that she had suffered a severe mental breakdown. In itself, this would make Mary an ‘outsider’; one under the judgement of God. Yet Jesus admitted both her and Joanna, who probably lived in the ‘defiled’ Roman city of Tiberius, to his group of friends. Mary may have continued to suffer from mental illness, and we have some evidence from Mark that Jesus was particularly concerned about people with such conditions. In the first century, like Mary, such people were stigmatised. Jesus himself seems to have suffered from such prejudice, even from members of his own family. For example, in Mark 3: 21 the original text seems to imply that they were concerned about his own sanity during the early part of his ministry in Galilee. This seems to have embarrassed some of the scribes copying the gospel, so that in some early manuscripts the wording has been changed in order to point to the ‘madness’ of the crowds around him, trying to seize him, rather than to any concern for his own mental health. In particular, Mark goes on to tell us (probably on the basis of what Peter told him), the religious leaders from Jerusalem were spreading false rumours that he was possessed by Beelzebub, the chief of demons, who was giving him the power to cast out lesser demons in others (3: 22-30). After dismissing this accusation, Jesus receives a message from his family to join him outside the house into which he has gone. He seems to dismiss their concerns, however, suggesting that he now has a new family of followers (31-35).

We should be careful not to speculate about Jesus’ mental state or inner emotional life, or to weave fantasies about his relationships with women. These reports reveal more about the customs and conventions of his contemporaries, some of which he had little time for. What we do know, from the gospels, is that Jesus was not afraid to show his emotions and that he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19: 41–42). His fellow Jews, at that time, would have found it unusual for a man to weep in public, even in front of close friends. Women were only supposed to do so when in mourning for a close relative, or as a part of an official group of mourners, otherwise they were expected to remain indoors. We also know that Jesus responded to the emotions of those, including the sisters Mary and Martha, who were weeping at the death of their brother and his ‘dear friend’ Lazarus. As Jesus approached their home in Bethany, two miles from the city, Martha met him outside the house while her sister stayed weeping within, being comforted by friends. Jesus tells Martha that he is the resurrection and the life and he asks her if she believes that he has the power over death, foreshadowing his own resurrection. She then declares him to be the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world. When Mary arrived, she fell weeping at his feet. His heart was touched, and he was deeply moved, weeping himself (John 11: 17-36). He then raised Lazarus, a miracle which made him supremely popular among most Judeans and led the Jewish authorities, in their jealousy, to make plans to arrest him (38-53).

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John also tells us that, at the beginning of the week before Passover, Jesus visited the home of Mary and Martha again. John apparently identifies Mary ‘the sister’ as the ‘woman’ who anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume, possibly also ‘the other Mary’ who accompanies Mary Magdalene to the tomb, according to Matthew. Other traditions have associated Mary Magdalene with the act. When Judas (only identified by John) asks, Why wasn’t this perfume sold … and the money given to the poor?, Jesus berates his hypocrisy and tells him to stop ‘bothering’ her, seeing this act as a ‘sacred’ foreshadowing of his burial (John 12: 1-8). Whichever Mary does the anointing, there is an obvious symbolic connection between the spontaneous, emotive events which take place in Bethany and this event outside the empty tomb.

When Jesus asks Mary of Magdala, Woman, why are you crying? he is, at first, repeating the question put to her by the angels. We might think it obvious why a woman might be crying outside a tomb, but Mary’s sorrow is different from that of a ritual mourner. Of course, the implication of the question is that she has no reason to cry since her Lord has risen. Jesus is not criticising her, however, or asking her to stop, but is rather meeting her in her vulnerability and empathising with her emotional state. But realising that she doesn’t recognise him, he doesn’t wait for her to repeat the answer she has given him but offers his help…

The Challenge for Today: Jesus meets us where we are, in all our human weakness, and speaks to our condition. Our emotions are important, as an indication that we have a problem to solve, and we should not be ashamed of them. They must be recognised as an important initial stage in confronting our problems and we should not try to leave them behind when we seek to engage our minds to these problems. We should value them, not simply dismiss them as irrational responses. Neither should we allow ourselves to get waterlogged by our tears, unable to see through them to what is in front of us; unable to turn around, to face the reality of the risen Christ and move onwards in our faith. 

2. To Mary Magdalene (Sunday morning, outside the tomb):

Who are you looking for? 

Jn. 20: 15-16;

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Archaeologists have discovered that Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre

stands on the site of a Jewish cemetery dating to the time of Jesus.

The question is more of an offer of help to find the ‘missing’ person which makes Mary think that the man before her is the gardener, perhaps someone she has met before as an acquaintance or servant, perhaps the ‘caretaker’ of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was probably well-known to the friends of Jesus, although he kept his discipleship secret since he was afraid of the Jewish authorities. Luke’s account has the women carrying spices, which might suggest that they had some contact with Joseph. He and Nicodemus had had to act quickly on the Friday evening, as the Jewish Sabbath began at dusk. They may not have had time to apply all the spices (a hundred pounds in weight) that Nicodemus had provided. In Mary’s initial report of the missing body to Peter, she used the plural, we don’t know where they have put him! This would confirm Luke’s account of at least three and possibly several women going to the tomb early on Sunday morning. On finding the empty tomb, they may have thought that there had been some misunderstanding with Joseph and that his servant, the gardener, had helped him to remove the body for embalming elsewhere. Hence her words, at this point, to the man she thinks is the gardener. At this point, Jesus decides to abandon the role in which Mary has cast him…

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‘The Good Shepherd’  is one of the most common themes in early Christian art.

Jesus’ parable of the ‘Lost Sheep’ stresses his ‘pastoral’ concern for the ‘outcasts’.

When Jesus, ‘the Good Shepherd’, calls Mary, ‘the outcast’ by name, she turns towards him and recognises him, calling him “Rabboni!” in Hebrew, meaning “Teacher”. It is only when she turns to him that she is able to overcome her shame and see clearly through her tears. This is not some ghostly appearance: the verbal, eye-to-eye and then the physical contact between them is so real and overwhelming for Mary that Jesus has to tell her to let him go, as he still has his earthly body. Then he gently instructs her, as her “Teacher”, to go to her brothers and tell them that his body is returning to God. In Matthew’s gospel (28: 8-10), Jesus meets Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (possibly, again, the sister of Martha, from Bethany), as they are running away from the tomb following a dramatic earthquake, the rolling away of the stone by ‘the angel of the Lord’ and his injunction to them to tell the disciples of the resurrection. Just as in John’s account, there is physical contact in the form of ‘worship’ between the women and him, and he instructs the women to tell their brothers to meet him in Galilee. In John’s story, the resurrection is not a stage on the way to Galilee, but on the way to the Father.

The Challenge for Today: While Jesus deals with us at an emotional level, he quickly moves us on to define the problem we are trying to solve. We need to turn and face the problem, and then acknowledge the reality of the resurrection, which provides us with the power to solve it.

3. To Cleopas (husband of Mary) and another ‘follower’ (later the same day, on the way to the village of Emmaus):

What are you talking about to each other, as you walk along? 

Luke 24: 17;

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This would appear to be the same story as that referred to by Mark (16: 12-13), but Luke uses his own sources to provide the all-important conversations. Jesus ‘catches up with’ his two ‘followers’ (not of ‘the eleven’) who do not recognise him. His question makes them sad and they suggest, in response, that he must be the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that have been happening there in the last few days! He follows up his question by asking them to what things they are referring…

The Challenge for Today: The third stage in resolving the problem, or conflict, is to clarify the issues. Jesus challenges us to get our story straight and understand what is really happening in our lives. Otherwise, we are just indulging in meaningless chatter, unable to create a meaningful narrative.

4. To the two followers as they came near to the village, (following their ‘discourse’ on ‘Jesus of Nazareth’):

Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and then enter his glory? 

Luke 24: 26-27;

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Jesus chides the two followers, who still do not recognise him, for being slow to believe everything the prophets said about ‘these things’. He then explains to them what was said about himself in ‘all the Scriptures’, beginning with the books of Moses and the writings of all the prophets. Only after he agrees to sojourn with them and breaks bread with them inside their place of rest do they recognise him. They reflect on their walk by asking each other, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”

The Challenge for Today: Jesus challenges us to understand and interpret what we have experienced, and when we do so we are able to connect our narrative to our experience. ‘These things’, these events then become real to us; we experience the resurrection for ourselves.

5. To ‘the eleven’ (with ‘the others’) plus Cleopas and the other ‘follower’ (who have returned to Jerusalem, later that same evening, to tell their news and to hear that Simon Peter has also seen the risen Christ):

Why are you alarmed? Why are these doubts coming up in your minds?

Luke 24: 38-40;

Jesus suddenly stands among ‘the thirteen’ and greets them with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you.”) They think that they are seeing a ghost, but Jesus tells them to look at his hands and feet and to feel his body, since a ghost does not have flesh and bones. Those gathered still could not believe, they were so full of joy and wonder; so he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” A polite request, rather than a question, but an important one, nonetheless, proving the continuing contact between the risen Jesus and the material world (Luke 24: 41-43).

They give him a piece of cooked fish, which he takes and eats in their presence. He goes on to remind them of what he taught them concerning everything that was written about himself in the Torah (Books of Moses), by the prophets and in the Psalms. He then ‘opens their minds’ to understand the Scriptures, telling them, “This is what is written: the Messiah must suffer and must rise from death three days later, and in his name the message about repentance and the forgiveness of sins must be preached to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.” As witnesses to these things, they are to wait in the city until the ‘power from above comes down’ upon them, which he himself will send, as promised by his Father (44-49).

In John’s gospel, this is the second appearance and Jesus’ first appearance to his disciples. They have locked themselves in, afraid of the Jewish authorities and, again, Jesus is suddenly standing among them. After greeting them in the same way as in Luke, Jesus shows them his hands and his side. He then inaugurates ‘the second creation’ by breathing on the disciples as God had breathed on Adam, and he gives them the Spirit and power over sin for their universal mission. Thomas is not with them at this time, according to John.

In Luke’s account, Jesus then leads them out of the City as far as Bethany, where he raises his hands and blesses them. According to Luke’s gospel, he departs from them and is taken up to heaven while blessing them (50-51). Mark’s gospel agrees, in shorter accounts, with Luke’s order of events to this point, but in his second book, The Acts of the Apostles, Luke corrects himself by telling his patron that ‘the Ascension’ took place after forty days in which Jesus appeared to his apostles many times, in ways that proved beyond doubt that he was alive. Luke repeats the instruction given by Jesus that they are to remain in Jerusalem and await the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1: 1-5).

The Challenge for Today: It’s only natural to have doubts; we have to be sure of what we believe. We mustn’t pretend, or just go along with what everyone else believes. We need to be fully convinced as individual believers for faith to work in practice and provide us with our unique purpose in life.

6. To Thomas the Twin (a week later, behind locked doors, with some of the other eleven):

Do you believe because you see me? (how happy are those who believe without seeing me). Jn. 20: 29;

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This is the third appearance reported by John, the second to the disciples. Jesus again greets the disciples with a ‘shalom’ (“Peace be with you”), then tells Thomas to place his finger in the wounds on his hands and his (Thomas’) hand in the wound in his side. He tells Thomas to stop doubting and believe. In the presence of the reality of the risen Lord, Thomas utters the highest confession of faith, comparable with the opening words of the prologue, as the basis of the faith of future believers. The dramatic nature of this encounter is captured by Paul White and Clifford Warne in their Drama of Jesus (1979):

“Peace be unto you”. The voice startled them.

They looked up and saw Jesus. In a moment they were all on their feet, their faces glowing.  No one spoke. Instinctively they turned to towards Thomas who stood there like a statue unable to believe his eyes.

He stammered, “Lord, Lord, is it really you?”

Jesus came close to him and held out his hands. His tone was warm and strong,

“Thomas, my friend, put your finger here. See my hands. See the nail wounds. And my side; take your hand and put it where the spear entered. Stop doubting and believe!”

Thomas slowly went down on his knees, his hands touching the wounded feet. “My Lord … and my God.”

“Is it because you have seen me that you believe?” Jesus asked him. “How happy are those who believe without seeing.”

And as suddenly as He had appeared, He vanished. The disciples stood there amazed. Thomas looked up, overwhelmed. The room was full of excitement and laughter of a sort that comes from profound relief and deep joy.

John spoke with infectious enthusiasm.  “Jesus is no dead memory. He is our living Lord.”

At this point in his gospel (Jn 20: 30-31), John inserts an important parenthesis, affirming the miraculous nature of these events, but also making it clear that he is not concerned to record them purely as miracles performed by Jesus, perhaps in the way that other gospel writers have recorded the many other miracles not written down in this book. His purpose is to point posterity towards faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Through that faith in the power of the resurrection, believers are to experience the resurrection life for themselves, without, unlike Thomas, being material witnesses to the resurrection body themselves. His purpose is to give testimony to the risen Christ, not to produce a chronicle of events, nor even a biography. It is natural that this passage should be inserted here, following Thomas’ confession of faith, though some scholars believe that this is the original ending of John’s gospel.

The Challenge for Today: Thomas’ predicament is a familiar one: Seeing is believing. We need to see the evidence for ourselves, and quite right too. But sometimes, like Thomas, we find it difficult to suspend our disbelief, especially because, unlike Thomas, we cannot experience the risen Christ at first hand. We need to keep faith with our first convictions and trust the testimony of others, even if we continue to doubt.

7. To the Seven ‘young men’ fishing (off the shores of Lake Galilee):

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Young men, haven’t you caught anything?

Jn. 21: 5;

Chapter 21 is probably an addition, and some scholars suggest that it was written by ‘another hand’, although the vivid nature of the eye-witness testimony would suggest that it must have been from a source involved in the intimate conversations which take place in this account. Also, the author is clearly aware that this is the third appearance of the risen Jesus to his male disciples reported in the gospel, though the fourth overall. It certainly reflects the Galilean traditions of Mark and Matthew. In it, disciples whose work has been fruitless until the Lord appears, make a perfect catch of fish under his direction, clearly symbolic of the apostolic mission to the world. Jesus stands on the water’s edge at sunrise, teasing his disciples by remaining ‘incognito’ and calling to them as ‘young men’, which many of them, doubtless no longer were after their three years of following him as “fishers of men”.

The challenge for today: Can you put an old head on young shoulders or a young head on old shoulders? Probably, the answer to both is negative, but we can all, young and old, try casting our nets on the other side of the boat, rather than just letting them drift, aimlessly. We must be careful not to miss opportunities to evangelise, to share the gospel, in whatever way works best. We have to cast our nets where the fish are, not where we expect them to be.

8. To Simon Peter, after the ‘barbecue’ on the shore:

Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these others do?

Jesus addresses Peter by his original name, and by the name of his fisherman father. He then begins a three-fold interrogation of him, corresponding to the threefold denial made on the night of his arrest and hearings before the Sanhedrin. The first question, like the last one in his denial, is more ‘barbed’ than the other two, however. It requires more than a Yes/No response and is perhaps calculated to disturb Peter on two levels because Jesus is really asking him ‘how deep’ his love really is, compared with that of the other disciples, especially John, the beloved disciple who is to some extent Peter’s rival right throughout the Passion Narrative. Jesus is really asking Peter whether he still loves him enough to die for him, as Peter had declared before. However, Peter only answers in the affirmative, perhaps more concerned to atone for his denials. Jesus responds, passing on the mantle of the Good Shepherd, by telling Peter to take care of the lambs in the flock of followers. In other words, he is charging him with a special responsibility for the younger apostles and disciples, perhaps including the ‘two others’ of the seven whose names are not given.

The Challenge for Today: How deep is our love? Are we prepared to sacrifice everything, even our lives, for our faith? There are still many Christians worldwide who suffer imprisonment, torture and death for what they believe in. We may not be called upon to make such sacrifices, but how can we prove our love for Jesus?

9. To Simon Peter, the same:

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

By asking him the ‘same’ question three times, Simon thinks that Jesus is trying to remind him of his denial of him, three times, before the cock crowed twice, on the night and early morning of his trial by the Sanhedrin. We can imagine Peter seeing flashbacks of his three failed challenges. In fact, the question he was asked on that night were not identical either. The first two, asked by the serving girl and the others (Jn. 18: 17, 25) were Aren’t you also one of the disciples of that man? The third was far more precise and thereby significant, asked by a relative of the injured steward of the High Priest, Didn’t I see you with him in the garden? His denial here was operating on two levels. If, as some accounts state, Peter was the assailant in this incident, any equivocation on his part could have led to his instant arrest and imprisonment for attempting to incite a riot against the Roman authorities, perhaps even his own execution, since the ‘steward’ might have been a far more significant man than a simple ‘slave’ in Roman terms. In his third denial, Peter is not simply denying Jesus but also betraying his promises to fight and die for him.

Following the second and third answers, Jesus commands Peter to ‘feed’ his ‘sheep’. Presumably, he is referring to the older disciples, revealing that he still regards Peter as their leader going forward. Jesus then reveals his reasons for ‘interrogating’ Peter. He does so, however, by lifting Peter’s mood by again joking about him not being a young man anymore, reminding him that life is now too short for him to go on being an ‘angry young man’, arguing about the future. He tells him that he must prepare himself, as the new leader and as his first follower, to sacrifice his life for the glory of God. He ends the conversation with the invitation that he first issued to Simon, follow me! By doing so, he indicates that Peter is forgiven, now that he has committed himself to becoming the new good shepherd, in charge of the flock.

The Challenge for Today: How many times do we have to forgive, or ask for forgiveness ourselves?: How often must we declare our love, when the one we declare it to already knows how our minds and hearts work? Are we prepared to face the costs of discipleship?

10. To Simon Peter, when they meet John:

If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you?

Peter turns around to see John, the beloved, standing nearby. This gives him a flashback to the Seder meal in the Upper Room, when John leaned close to Jesus and asked him, Lord, who is going to betray you? This was when everything started to go wrong for them as a group, and for him in particular, when he was replaced in Jesus’ affections by John. Later that night he had angered Jesus by drawing his sword and injuring the steward of the High Priest, which didn’t help, and when his Lord was in agony on the cross, it was John who stood nearby with Mary his mother and the other women, the two other Marys. Jesus asked him, not Peter, to be a son to his mother, and she went to live in his new home in Galilee. He, therefore, had already been given a special role as the ‘protector’ of the women in the group. It was natural for Peter to expect that Jesus would have chosen John to become the new leader of the group, even though he, Peter, was the more senior disciple. John was quicker of body and mind and he was the first to realise the significance of the empty tomb and to believe in the resurrection.

Now Jesus had chosen Peter once more, overheard by John, Peter asked him what was to happen to his ‘rival’.  Jesus’ question indicates that John is not to suffer martyrdom like Peter, using humorous hyperbole to chide Peter; What if I want John to live forever? That’s none of your business! Some of the early Christians still alive when John was writing his gospel, his other letters and his eschatological book, The Revelation, took this statement to be a promise to John that he would witness the second coming of Christ in person. This was preventing them from spreading the ‘good news’ more widely, so John re-edited the ending of his book to make it clear that Jesus did not say that he would not die, but simply told Peter to expect not just the persecution that they would all suffer,  but also a premature death. He should, therefore, focus on his own life and mission, and not concern himself with John’s role.

The Challenge for Today: Being ‘single-minded’ is not the same as being ‘self-centred’. Paul was single-minded when he wrote, this one thing I do. We all have to work out our own salvation, and our own mission statement. In doing so, Jesus reminds us not to be jealous of each other, or to compare ourselves with others, but to encourage each other in our divergent vocations. As Jesus’ followers, both as individual believers and fellowships, we are called upon to act now on our own consciences and to follow our unique missions and vocations, not to wait for God to act in some dramatic fashion, trying to predict where, when and how the Second Coming and the End of Days will take place.

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Luke’s second book, The Acts of the Apostles opens with a picture which is usually thought of as ‘the ascension’ of Jesus. It raises many problems, however, not just for modern minds, but for the whole of the New Testament. It is safer to approach his account indirectly and to try to understand Luke’s account against the background of the New Testament as a whole. Other writers describe what happened to Jesus after his death, leading to the birth of the church, in two different ways, as the resurrection and as an exaltation. These, together with the coming of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) are seen as aspects of one complex event, reported in Paul’s letters as well as in Matthew (28: 16) and John (20: 22). Luke, however, splits the complex into three distinct parts and, following his practice of portraying divine action in the world in the form of vivid, objective pictures, has given each aspect a life of its own.

There is some doubt about the exact place of the ascension in Luke’s sequence. According to the majority of ancient manuscripts, one ascension, on the day of the resurrection, is recorded at Luke 24: 51, which clashes with the ascension after forty days in Acts 1: 9. It has been suggested that the passage between these two verses was supplied later when the New Testament was given its present order and what was originally a single book, Luke-Acts, was split. This removes some, but not all, of the difficulties. It would be wrong, however, to place too much emphasis on these problems, or to lay too much stress on the physical features of the ‘ascension in Acts. After all, the description of the two ascensions together occupies less than two verses. It is the message that accompanies them that is more important.

Luke tells us, in this passage, that Jesus continued to teach them about ‘the Kingdom of God’ (v 3). He goes on to describe them as questioning him as to whether he would give the Kingdom back to Israel. Jesus tells them that “the times and occasions” are set by his Father’s authority, and are not for them “to know when they will be.” They must wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them before moving out from Jerusalem to be witnesses “in all of Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This account, intriguingly, ends with a question asked by angels, just as they asked the first question in Luke’s account of the resurrection (to the women at the empty tomb), Why are you looking among the dead for the one who is alive? Now they ask the apostles, Galileans, why are you standing there looking up at the sky? They are told that Jesus will come back in the same way as they saw him go to heaven. The implication, for them and for us, is that they (and we) are not to wait around ‘star-gazing’, talking about what will happen in the ‘Last Times’. Having received the Spirit, true disciples must get on with living the resurrection life here and now, sharing it with all mankind.

For Luke, the ascension is a means to an end. It marks his recognition that the period of the church is not like the period of the earthly ministry of Jesus and that Jesus must take on a new status if he is to give the Spirit to the church. Luke depicts this transition in a way which was meaningful to the audience of his day and which had the stamp of ‘biblical’ authority. Thus, the way to understand the ascension is to concentrate on Luke’s use both of Old Testament and first-century imagery to express what he wanted to say.

So, in the three-storied universe, heaven, the home of God, was ‘above’. Luke then fills the interval between the ascension and Pentecost with an account of the election of Matthias to fill the vacant place in the twelve left by Judas’ death. Significantly, he is to be chosen as one of those who witnessed the entire ministry of Jesus, the resurrection and the ascension. The Spirit is not yet given, so the disciples pray before using the time-honoured tradition of drawing lots to determine God’s will. Matthias does not appear again, and the twelve as a group fade out of the subsequent narrative.

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The list of the disciples given in Acts differs from those given in the gospels, which suggests that some of them were soon forgotten. We only have legendary details about the later careers of most of them. They seem to have been chosen by Jesus not so much as leaders of a future church, but rather as partners and interlocutors in the proclamation of the coming kingdom. Except in prayer, there were no more questions to be asked or answered. They had a new job to do: they had been given good news, not just for their own people, but for the whole world, everybody everywhere, regardless of all frontiers of race, class or creed. But first, they needed the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete to come alongside them. Even then, some of them, it seems, tackled it rather unwillingly, since it went against the grain of their Judaistic belief. They were to be given a new vision of God and of themselves and of the world in which they lived. This new vision was to make them rethink everything in a way very different from the conventional, traditional ways of ‘doing religion’ they had been brought up in. They found themselves in a world where, for the first time, a world vision could mean something to ordinary men and women. The Roman Peace gave freedom of travel on land and sea across the known world, and the Greek language, the common language of that world, gave the small group of men and women whom Jesus had gathered around him the tools they needed to communicate with that world.

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In addition to their ten interactions with the risen Christ, we can add Jesus’ challenge to Saul on the road to Damascus, though that belongs to a later period in the growth of the Christian movement known then as The Way of the Lord. Paul himself refers to other ‘appearances’ but gives no details of the interactions or conversations involved, so that we know nothing of the purposes of the appearances. In a spiritual sense, all Christians are witnesses to the resurrection and have responded to a challenge of the risen Lord in their living and thinking. The act of believers’ baptism in itself is an act of remembrance of the resurrection and the individual’s experience of being raised to a transformed life within the wider Christian community. The debate among Christians as to what reportable events happened and what sort of events they were is as old as our earliest records. The rise of scientific inquiry in the twentieth century and the development of archaeological and historical methods of research have brought it acutely before the minds of Christians and non-Christians alike.

Of course, historical questions must be asked about the evidence for the resurrection. For us, as for the first friends of Jesus, it is a matter of the utmost importance in order to ensure that what we claim happened actually happened. Otherwise, we would all be living a gross lie. Just as he did in his earthly ministry, and with his disciples, Jesus invites our questions, including those prompted by disbelief, doubt and scepticism. We are expected to seek the answers in the most rigorous way. When all is said and done, however, we are dealing with an event which is not a purely historical event. It is closely involved in the reality of Christian experience, not just another incident in an unfolding story. It was not the reports of what had happened to a limited number of witnesses that changed men’s lives; it was the event itself. It was the revealing climax which made all the difference to the story. They could only say God raised him from death.

For some Christians, the customary ways of approaching the resurrection closely resemble the way they approach the miracles of Jesus in general. The traditional faith of the church in the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body is straightforward, and to be accepted. The tomb was empty; Jesus appeared to his disciples and later ascended to heaven. The New Testament says so; why complicate things further? Of course, there are discrepancies between these accounts, but that is only to be expected when the same event is described by several different people. For others of us, however, it is impossible to prove the question either way in definite scientific or historical terms. So we might settle for the way in which John Hick presented it:

We shall never know whether the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily event; or consisted instead in visions of Jesus; or in an intense sense of his unseen personal presence. But we do know the effects of the event and we know that whatever happened was such as to produce these effects. The main result was the transformation of a forlorn handful of former followers of an executed and discredited prophet into a coherent and dynamic fellowship with a faith which determined its life and enabled it to convince, to grow, to survive persecution and become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire.

This view follows the belief that something happened together with the conviction that human reaction to Jesus was a constituent part of the event. His resurrection is a complex event. New Testament writers report it in different ways, and they differ in perspective as well as in detail. But they agree in including in this ‘event’ the consequences of the death of Jesus, up to and including the conviction of the church that Jesus, who had died, was the Risen Lord. What is to be distilled out from all this as the essence of the resurrection is less easy to say. An examination of the gospel accounts of the resurrection reveals a wide divergence in the viewpoints and conclusions of the four evangelists. Rather than providing clear answers, they raise more questions, awkward questions that will not go away. But we are not merely asking historical questions. The central and essential truth, that those who doubted were transformed into a dynamic new movement, would still seem to be best explained by a recognition that this change had been produced by something that really happened, and which they knew to have happened, to Jesus of Nazareth. His followers had seen in him a love which was free from all self-concern. In his death, they recognised the perfect expression of that love. His cross became a symbol of a love which accepts the full consequence of self-centred human action. His resurrection symbolised the power of that love to renew human life and it held the promise of a life made perfect beyond death:

For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Col. 3: 3f)

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But the church around the corner rarely looks like a body of men and women whose ways of thinking and acting are controlled, even imperfectly, by their self-denying love for each other, let alone for their fellow men and women in wider society. Perfect love may be New Testament teaching, but it is seldom seen in popular Christian practice. It does not seem to cast out fear, prejudice and hatred. The only answer to this criticism is to acknowledge that a standard of perfection tends to produce hypocrisy and compromise in an imperfect world. At the same time, the church can point sceptics and doubters to contemporary examples of how that love evokes heroic responses and prophetic leadership in every generation. We must continue the dialogue begun by Jesus himself with every fresh generation.

Even in the early generations of the Christian community, the spirit of love was often defeated by the persistent power of self-interest, often stronger than love and concern for others. Paul constantly reminded the recipients of his letters that a new motivation should be at work among them (II Cor. 5: 14-17). He also found it necessary to urge them not to accept the grace of God in vain (II Cor. 6: 1). The new creation (II Cor. 5: 17) was not complete and perfect in the first century, so perhaps we should not expect it to be so in the twenty-first century, dominated by all-pervasive materialistic and hedonistic values. Those who seek fresh guidelines for action in our own day must turn back to ultimate Christian principles and must be conscious of true Christian motives. Only then can we inform the idealism of younger generations by New Testament teaching on love and law and guide it into fruitful channels of action.      

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The theology of the early church, as it was developed in the Epistles, arose out of the historical events of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, his victory over death and his continuing spiritual presence with his followers. The key to understanding the growth of the early Christian movement is the stimulus of the resurrection of Christ. It is hard to conceive that there would have been any Christianity without a firm belief by the early disciples in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They were convinced that their master had conquered death and had appeared to many of them in person. Only this resurrection faith explains how the small, motley, demoralised group which Jesus left on earth after his reported ascension could have developed the enthusiasm to sweep all obstacles before them in their bold worldwide mission. A few disheartened followers were transformed into the most dynamic movement in the history of mankind. Without this firm belief in a risen Christ, the fledgling Christian faith would have faded into oblivion.

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Christian scholars today make different historical and theological judgements about the precise details and nature of the resurrection appearances, based on the differing first-hand reports. Our decisions on these matters are secondary to our decisions about the story of Jesus as a whole. How do we react to the witness of his remembered ministry, of his passion and of his resurrection? That same Jesus pushes our questions back to us as individual believers. There are three inescapable questions that we all face: Who am I? What is my place in society? What am I here for? The first is the one of identity, the second is the question of love and the third is the question of purpose. They are inescapable because though we may never formulate the answers in words, they will be answered by the way we live. Discussion of these questions always range far and wide and bring in many contemporary questions and issues, but the Christian’s starting-point and a constant source for reference-back must be the New Testament and the questions of Jesus within it. He continues to challenge us with these until we come to … You – who do you say I am? Any retelling of his story must bring us back to this question, and leave us to answer it as individual believers, according to our own consciences.

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Sources:

Robert C. Walton (ed.) (1970), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM

David Kossoff (1978), The Book of Witnesses. Glasgow. Collins.

George F. Jowett (1961), The Drama of the Lost Disciples. London. Covenant Publishing.

Briggs, Linder & Wright (eds.)(1977), The History of Christianity: A Lion Handbook. Berkhamsted: Lion Publishing.

Alan T. Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paul White & Clifford Warne (1980), The Drama of Jesus. Sydney: Hodder & Stoughton.

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